Indigency uniformity bill advances to full House

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Legislation designed to bring uniformity to judges’ indigency determinations is continuing to move through the Indiana Statehouse without opposition.

Senate Bill 302 passed the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee with a 10-0 vote Wednesday.

The bill, authored by Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, creates a statutory list of factors for judges to consider when making indigency determinations.

SB 302 was born of the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code. According to Tallian, judges in different counties take different approaches to indigency determinations, resulting in what is sometimes called “justice by geography” – a person being found indigent when facing charges in one county, may be found to have the ability to pay when facing the same charges in another county.

The indigency factors listed in the bill include a defendant’s assets, income, necessary expenses, and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal and state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or another need-based program.

Michael Moore with the Indiana Public Defender Council spoke in favor of SB 302 before the House committee, offering specific praise for the inclusion of SNAP and TANF benefit eligibility in the indigency equation. Some judges already consider those factors, Moore said, while others do not.

The original language of the bill called for an initial indigency determination to follow a defendant through the life of a case, but that language was removed. Instead, judges are given discretion to review a person’s financial status at any point in the case. A person gaining or losing a job, for example, could affect indigency status, Tallian said.

Though Moore said the Public Defender Commission supported the language that maintained indigency throughout a case, he also said in practice, defendants will still likely keep their indigent status while their case is pending.

Tallian’s bill has previously received unanimous support from the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee and from the full Senate chamber. It now moves to the full House.

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